SHELLEY WONG: All right, I was trying to think about a way of avoiding the use of the word welcome, because I'm sure you've heard it so often already in the last few days, but I couldn't think of anything else. So I apologize, but welcome. Welcome to Cornell. Welcome to this event today. My name is Shelley Wong and I'm a member of the faculty here in the Department of English and in the Asian American Studies program. And I know that at least half of you must have already declared your interest in being an English major. Is that true? All right. And if you have-- and even if you haven't-- please feel free to come and talk with me after the lecture about possible courses you could take in that department or in the Asian American Studies program.
Can you still hear me? I can barely hear myself, for some reason. OK, you'll let me know if it's not working. A couple of other apologies, besides apologizing for using the word welcome--
It's not that you're trapped. You can get out. They just can't get in, all right, so don't feel too captive. So apologies-- first of all, I usually walk around a bit when I talk. But unbeknownst to most of you, I'm actually-- in part because I'm vertically challenged-- I'm standing on this little riser, and the surface area of that riser, to be generous, would be about two feet by three feet. So if I step too much one way or the other or get too excited, I will disappear from view completely. Don't worry. The lecture will end early. You can go and have some fun instead.
So where to begin? I was thinking that it wasn't that long ago that I helped my son move into Mary Donlon on North Campus, and it was a much hotter day that it was this past Friday for your own move in. But I was thinking of him in part because I was thinking, all right, how should I shake my remarks today? What might he have wanted to hear? And then it occurred to me, what child wants to listen to their mother lecturing at them, anyway? So it didn't matter, so I gave up on that particular idea.
But where I would like to begin, then, is to think about this matter of coming to someplace new, and I want to start with a couple of anecdotes. Sorry, I'm getting a little close to that edge there. To start with a couple of anecdotes-- they are recounting particular incidents that took place the first week that I arrived here in Ithaca, and arrived at Cornell, and this was about 20 years ago.
The first had to do with an interview. A student was deputized to interview me to publish a brief blurb in one of the departmental newsletters. And so we agreed to meet and we started to talk a little bit about my background, where I was from. I'm from Vancouver, British Columbia. I did my bachelor's and master's degree in English there, before going to UC Berkeley to do a PhD in Ethnic Studies. And so we talked through a lot of this, and I was talking about having spent a lot of time in Vancouver's Chinatown, in part because my parents operated a little coffee shop in Chinatown there. And she had asked, as I said, to record it, because she was worried that she wouldn't be able to remember the particular details of it. So I said, fine, go ahead, record it.
And so about a week later, I get a call from her, and she says, the tape somehow got wiped out, but could she go ahead and write it any way? She felt she had a really good memory and she could do the story justice. And so I said, fine, go ahead and do so. And when I read the article that described my life a couple of weeks later, I noticed that the general arc of that story ran something like this-- Professor Wong grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown. Eventually, her parents' financial fortunes-- they got better, and they eventually moved out to the suburbs, and then she studied, got some degrees, and then got a job at Cornell.
And some of those things are true. I did spend a lot of time in Vancouver's Chinatown, and I did get some degrees-- the ones that I had mentioned earlier-- and I did get hired to teach at Cornell University. But what was strange about the particular arc of the story was that she had inserted all kinds of little things that made it sound like a Horatio Alger story, that somehow I'd pulled myself up by my bootstraps, gone from rags to the riches of Cornell, and so I pointed this out to her later. But anyway, the point I wanted to make is, without that actual recording on hand, she shaped the story in a particular kind of way. And so the question is, why did she shape it in that particular way?
So hold onto that story. The second story-- so I arrive in Ithaca, and-- as anyone knows who arrives to a new place-- you have to set up your home. You have to go get all your household sundries, get whatever it is that you need, your toiletries-- all of that kind of stuff. And at that time there was a Woolworth's, a sort of predecessor of Target-- or Tar-zhay, for the sophisticates here. And so I went there to get whatever it was on my particular list. And when I had finished with that list, there was only one item that I had yet to find, but I couldn't find it anywhere.
And so finally, I asked a young sales clerk there, a young woman. I said, excuse me, could you please tell me where I could find some Chapstick? There's this silence. She kind of looks at me. And I said, did I say something wrong? And so she keeps looking at me. She's not saying anything. So I have to say again, could you tell me where I could find some Chapstick? And then there's another pause and thinking, maybe she doesn't understand me. Maybe it's my Canadian accent or something. It's hard. And so I resorted to synonyms. I said, how about lip balm, you know, lip moisturizer? That didn't seem to elicit much response. And so I took to graphically trying to demonstrate what it was.
And then finally, a look of recognition, and she said, sorry, we don't sell chopsticks here. I've just been hired here to teach in the English department, I'm a professor of English, and is there something wrong here? Is there something that's not quite right in this particular exchange? And so I said, I'm not looking for chopsticks. I'm looking for Chapstick. She pauses for a moment, and then she says, oh, Chapstick? I said, yes, Chapstick. And so she says, oh, they're up front by the cash register. I said, OK, fine. I'll go up to the cash register. I start walking off towards the cash register. And I hear this voice behind me, shouting at me, but if you're looking for chopsticks, we don't carry them here! So I said, OK, all right.
And actually, one very brief anecdote to follow up on that, that pairs up with it. So we have to buy parking permits here to park on campus. And so one of the first things I did was to go to the transportation office to get a parking permit. And the man across the counter from me was very friendly, processed all of the paperwork, and within a few minutes had handed me the particular permit. And he then went on to tell me, you know, you have to be careful to hang this on your rear view mirror. I said, I'll certainly do that. And then, as I'm about to leave, he says, after all, no ticky no washee.
You may not know this reference. The line has to do with laundries, where you would take your clothes in and you would be given a claim receipt of some kind-- a ticket, in that sense. And if you wanted to reclaim your items, you had to produce your ticket. And there was a standing joke, in the probably mid-20th century and even earlier-- that had to do with Chinese laundrymen saying, no ticky no washee. So I said, OK. So hang onto those anecdotes and I'll come back to them and try to explain why it is that I started with those particular ones.
So let's start here. I understand that geography is not taught in many schools anymore. So just to give a sense of where Topaz, Utah is-- all right. So this is where I want to begin. I want to talk mostly about two questions, and if it seems like I'm beginning to go over time-- because I went over time on the anecdotes or something-- again, give me the high sign. I don't want to keep you from that good weather outside. But mostly today I want to talk about these two questions. So what does Julie Otsuka's novel When the Emperor was Divine tell us about time in relation to the experiences of belonging and estrangement? And the second question, what does the novel tell us about the relationship between story and history?
So I think most of you would agree, if I were to say that this novel is about belonging and about not belonging, about processes of relocation, of dislocation, of displacement. And it's about the suddenness and the inexplicably with which those processes unfold, turning the characters, overnight, into unwanted strangers-- that is, strangers to themselves, as well as to others. So let's begin there. And I'd like to begin, too, with one of the classic 20th century statements about racial estrangement, being a racial stranger. I can do this, all right.
The following quotations are from WEB Du Bois's 1903 collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk. Some of you may be familiar with this text. Du Bois was a sociologist, a historian, a novelist, and a co-founder of the NAACP. So he writes in that book, "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?" And then he says, "After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, always measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness-- an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
So how does one feel one's two-ness? Or, to put it another way, what does two-ness of the sort that Du Bois is describing feel like? Or Du Bois himself offers another framing of the issue when he asks, "How does it feel to be a problem?" So at a very general level, the experience of relocating, of being displaced or dislocated, no doubt resonates with you, given your situation as newcomers to the campus, newcomers to Ithaca, New York-- except maybe for a handful of you, who might actually be from Ithaca, New York. While your own relocation here wasn't involuntary-- at least, I hope not-- the kinds of displacement or dislocation you may be feeling now-- or perhaps in the days to come, when the sort of excitement and stress of moving in wears off-- what you're experiencing now might help you understand the response of the novel's characters to their own evacuation.
Alternatively, Julie Otsuka's rendering of her character's efforts to respond to their changed circumstances might well help you think about what your own moves away from home mean. Who you were two weeks ago, who you are now, who you will be in the years ahead here-- these questions aren't going to go away. How will being here at Cornell affect you and your relationships with family and friends at home? How might your very understanding of home change? How does moving here dislocate or displace the familiar structures of friendship and family relations? Where and how will you come to locate your time at Cornell in the larger narrative of your life?
So the geographical dislocation or displacement that you've experienced will likely be accompanied by dislocations and displacements in the realm of the emotional, the psychological, the physical, and the intellectual. In the absence of familiar structures of emotional support, how will you construct new ones? And how will these new ones affect the old ones? How might the regimens of campus life-- including eating, sleeping, playing, studying, and other things that I've missed-- shift or dislodge the more familiar habits and rhythms of daily life? As you're introduced to new ideas and concepts in your classes, or even introduced to new friends, what do you do with the old ones? Do the old and the new always mix well? Relocations come with consequences and, depending on the circumstances governing those relocations, those consequences will be more or less severe, or more or less life altering, or perhaps different in kind altogether.
So let's come to this notion of context, Cornell context. This is where you are. What is the particular context? What are the particular contexts that you occupied in your life? If context refers to the circumstances relevant to something under consideration, then the current circumstances of your disorientation-- which programs like this are meant to address-- will be one of the contexts that will inform or shape your reading of Otsuka's novel. Each of the Cornell context lectures takes a different approach to the novel, and not because my colleagues and I are rabid individualists who insist on declaring our own opinions at all times and in all places. I'm not talking here about a matter of subjectivity, especially if we think about subjectivity in its negative sense, when it's set up as the evil twin of objectivity.
The different approaches that I'm talking about here have to do instead with different ways of knowing that produce different kinds of knowledge-- so thinking about contexts, thinking about different ways of knowing, how you know courses of study, how you know each other, how you know what it means to live in this society. But if we come back to the sense of a different way of knowing and different kinds of knowledge, we can think about these different ways of knowing arising in part out of our respective backgrounds and training in different disciplines such as literary studies, history, sociology, physics, or mathematics. And I certainly hope you'll take advantage of the wide range of disciplinary possibilities here at Cornell, and especially in your first year. If you do, what you'll likely find is that each discipline, or each field of intellectual inquiry, comes with its own conceptual framework for understanding its object of study. Whoops, now what am I going to do? Don't do that. OK.
Where was I-- that each discipline comes with its own conceptual framework for understanding its object of study and for understanding the world in which that object is embedded. A discipline, or field of inquiry, comes with its own sense of what's important to study and of how one should go about studying it. So if we're thinking about context here, we need to think, too, about how our disciplinary locations-- where we're located in terms of disciplines-- how those positionings can guide, or frame, or determine what we know and how we know it. And the fact that knowledge can be framed in very different ways has been the source of a lot of confusion for students. How is it that in different classroom settings you might seem to be talking about the same object, but you're getting completely different understandings of it, completely different takes on it?
And so why is this important to think about? It's important, in one sense, because we tend to think about knowledge as just knowledge, that that's what it is. It's one thing. It's singular. It's unified in some way, as if we can all agree on what constitutes knowledge. And certainly one of the big challenges you'll have here is trying to grapple with some sense that there's something called partial knowledge.
I'm going to skip some of this so we can get to the good stuff. I'm talking about these different contexts and different ways of knowing because I also want to bring out, through our discussion of the novel, ways of knowing that are not the conceptual frameworks of disciplines, but ways of knowing that are the particular mental maps or conceptual frameworks that you use on a day-to-day basis to navigate the social world. How do you navigate that world? And it's a way of pointing out that those mental maps that you use on a daily basis-- those things aren't given at birth. These things are made by particular cultures and societies at particular times, and you learn it as you grow up. So I want you to hang onto this idea of frames and framings, because this is going to come up repeatedly.
So let's jump into the book then. This is where I go? OK. So in a review of the novel in The New York Times, the critic Michael Upchurch referred to the matter of Japanese-American internment as a chapter of American history that still sits uneasily on the conscience of the nation. He goes on to say that even after the achievement of reparations for Japanese Americans, the question of how internment came to happen still stays with us. And he then goes on to say that one crucial step, though, towards trying to answer that question-- how did internment happen-- would be to ask, what did it feel like?
What did internment feel like? And he said, we find that answer in Otsuka's novel. So he's saying, what did it feel like? So in this framing of the meaning of the novel, for this particular critic-- the metaphors that he's using lead us to think about American history as a book, the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II as one chapter in that book. And if we can just get some sense of what it felt like to be interned, we would be one step closer towards filling in that entire story.
So that seems kind of obvious, in one sense. I hope to make it a little less obvious later. I think few of you would disagree. I don't think I've come across any criticism that disagrees with his estimation, or his sense that the book is about what it feels like to be interned. And certainly, the author agrees, as well. At the beginning of one interview she gave, the interviewer asks Julie Otsuka what it was that inspired her to write the novel. And Otsuka answers-- whoops, that's the wrong one. OK. These are in the wrong order, but my apologies. OK, here it is.
She says, "I never consciously set out to tell this particular story. It's almost an accidental book. The images came to me over time, but I never thought the material would add up to anything. Also, I didn't think anyone would be interested in the subject matter. But for some reason, the subject of the internment-- but even more than that, the emotions behind it-- somehow resonated with me. It was sort of a daunting subject. It was hard to know how to do it justice. But I thought of the book as a story about the characters first-- always-- and not really a story about Japanese Americans during World War II."
So here she's saying that it was the emotions behind the internment that resonated with her, and that she thought of the book as a story about the characters first and foremost. Upchurch's understanding of the focal subject of the novel gets some support here. What's curious, though, is the final clause of that last sentence, where Otsuka says that the novel is not really a story about Japanese Americans during World War II. So what does she mean by that?
This is a story with specific characters who are Japanese Americans. They lived during the period of the Second World War. They were, in fact, interned in the novel, as actual Japanese Americans were in that period. Is Otsuka suggesting that a story about these characters would be different than, or somehow distinct from, a story about Japanese Americans during World War II? And if so, how would it be different? So here I'm trying to get at a sense of how you frame stories.
So this is where we'd have to go back and reassess Upchurch's sense that answering the question of what it felt like will somehow get you to, our move you along in, a crucial way towards answering that other question of how the internment came to be. But what I'm trying to suggest here is that maybe they're not the same thing. Maybe it wouldn't lead to that. Maybe it would lead to a different kind of story, it would lead to a different kind of answer.
And since we were talking about this sense of context, or ways of knowing, might the problem be, or might the issue here be, a matter of different perspectives, different viewpoints or standpoints from which a given story is told? Might those differing standpoints or perspectives point to different meanings of the event that we refer to as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? What is it that we would learn or take away from the respective stories? And why can't we just put the stories together and make one great big story that's a more comprehensive story, and a very unified kind of story?
So maybe we can get some kind of insight into what she meant by that by looking at another section of the interview, where she is responding with the question of whether or not she's ever considered turning the book into a film. Let me go backwards here. She says, "Have I? No. I think it's not a very sexy story." Maybe you'd agree. "There's no love interest. It seems like it would not be very filmable. There's almost no plot. I mean, I guess there is some plot, but it's just history. But what happens? Time passes and a family reacts to the situation. I think I'm weak on plot. It's not a very good story."
So I don't know if you're getting a little confused yet or not. So it's not a very good story. It's not really a story about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It seems like that's what everyone is talking about it as. Maybe you're thinking that you really didn't get your money's worth, or maybe you're just grateful and consoling yourself that you didn't have to pay for the book, or something like that. So it's not a very good story, it's pretty weak on plot, and it's not about Japanese-American internment during World War II. OK, so what is it about? That's for me to answer.
So let's look again at her comments about the cinematic potential of the novel. She's saying, OK, it probably wouldn't have much audience appeal, because there's no love interest. It's not very sexy in that sense. But second, and more significantly, she suggests that it would not be very filmable, because for her film seems to require a plot, and her novel is weak on plot. And her novel, in fact, she says, has almost no plot. So let's think for a minute. What kinds of distinctions is she making between story and plot? In general terms, plot could be described as the design or pattern of events in a play, a poem, or a work of fiction. And you could expand that description and say that the incidents and the characters should be organized in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or the reader. I hope the rest of these are in order. We'll find out.
So here's a very brief take on the distinction between story and plot from the English novelist EM Forster, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, with some comments that might help us try to figure out what's the distinction between story and plot and why does it even matter. So he says, we've defined story as a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, but here the emphasis falling on causality.
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadowed it. Or again, the queen died. No one knew why until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king. He says, this is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence. It moves as far away from the story as its limitations allow.
So here he's talking about story as a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. And it's a definition that matches up pretty well with what Otsuka was saying about how she narrated events in her own novel. So pressed to describe what happens in the novel, she says, time passes and the family reacts to the situation. For Otsuka, When the Emperor was Divine could be considered weak in plot in so far as the novel puts more emphasis on time sequence than causality.
So there are these incidents and events. And this is the sequence in which they appeared, and that seems to be a large part of the novel. What you don't see so much in the novel are questions like, how did this happen? Why is this happening? What's going to happen, and why? Or even, is anything going to happen? Or is it just a matter of time passing and the family reacting to the situation?
So what does it mean to experience time without reference to causality, or time sequence without causality? This happens. That happens. You were two years old. You ate 12 hot dogs at Coney Island when you were six. You fell out of a tree when you were nine. Then there was that moment when you were eight and your older brother beat you up. And there was that moment when you were 12, when you failed a math exam. And there was that moment when you were 16, when you aced that particular history essay. Then there was that moment at 26, when you got married. And then again, there was that moment at 15, when you lost your bike.
So what's the meaning of that story? What's the meaning? So what is the meaning, in terms that we can derive from something, when it seems just to be a listing of things, not even in any particular order? And it's a way of drawing attention to the ways in which the ordering of events, the kinds of meanings we assign to a particular form of ordering, is then what determines meaning in a particular story. There's causality. This happened because of that. There was some kind of development. It's hard for us to try to think about how to make a story around a laundry list, or a grocery list, or whatever that list was of somebody's life.
So this is, in a way, to hark back to that interview with that student. What she tried to do was to organize and order the events of my life into a kind of narrative arc, a storyline, that she was familiar with, and that she understood, and that made sense in the context of someone who has just arrived at Cornell to take up a position as a faculty member there. It would make sense to talk about this kind of story.
Regardless of what those details had been, the overriding imperative here was to tell, in one sense, a familiar story. It might not have had much to do with my life, but it's a familiar story. And people know what that kind of story means. It means progress. It means things are getting better. But what we have in this novel is frequently a sense that things don't get better. The things that are lost stay lost. When the mother loses her earring on the train, she just says, well, maybe it just disappeared. It's never going to come back. And she says, maybe I had no business even wearing it in the first place.
Or when the father finally comes back-- yes, he does come back, but in a sense, he remains lost. He's certainly not the father that they knew before the war. And he's lost to himself, as well as being lost to the family. And we can think of any one of the characters in that particular way. What was lost-- was it ever regained? What kind of storyline would cover that? We all know the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty? Anyone know Humpty Dumpty? Anyone? Huh? All right, I'll speak to your adviser. I'll put in some good words for you if you can recite it.
AUDIENCE: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
SHELLEY WONG: OK, I hope everyone heard that. All right, thank you.
Come and talk with me after the lecture, OK? You have a future in the English department. OK, so Humpty Dumpty-- all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty back together again. So some things you just can't put back together again. There may not be resolutions to particular kinds of stories. And what does it mean if a particular story doesn't have a particular resolution that we recognize as a certain kind of ending?
So let me just-- I can pull that up-- play you a brief segment of an interview with Julie Otsuka, where she talks about the last chapter, and her sense of what that last chapter meant. And then I'll play a second clip, where she talks about a particular kind of narrative that this novel is not. So let's hope this works.
- All right. When I was writing the book, I thought that the last chapter would end very gently, and quietly, and beautifully, but I knew it would be keeping [INAUDIBLE] the rest of the novel. But this chapter [AUDIO OUT] came to me as a gift from the writing gods. I one day heard this angry, angry voice in my head. And I almost felt as though I were channeling the father's anger, but also the anger, as stated, like you said, of all the other men-- like your father-- who were unfairly arrested by the FBI in those days and weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And I feel like there is so much unexpressed anger in the book. I feel like the book is a slow, simmering build up of the nerves. And it felt to me like the father's angry outburst a truer ending to my novel.
SHELLEY WONG: OK, so keep that in mind-- the sense that the anger, the bitterness at the end, seems like a truer ending for her.
- What I do wonder is how you explain to a group of 10-year-olds that one of their classmates is being sent away because she belongs to the wrong race. I think that in a weird way, that sort of logic makes more sense in the world of adults than it does in the world of children. And I also remember by mother saying that when she came back from what she calls camp, at the end of the war, that none of her classmates asked her where she had been for the past three and 1/2 years. They said hello to her as if nothing at all had happened.
So there's this horrible negation. And in my own family, there's been so much silence about what it was that had happened. Nobody really seemed to want to talk about it. And I know that when I was growing up in California, going to school we weren't talking about the camps in history class. That was a long time ago. And I think I assume that by now things would have changed, but since my first novel came out, I've traveled across the country and spoken to many first year freshmen, and high schoolers, and some middle school students, as well.
And often after my reading or my talks, students will come up to me, and they'll say, well, this is just fiction, right? You made it up. It didn't really happen, or, I didn't know. And I will explain it. It is fiction, but it really did happen. I've thought long and hard about why it is that our young people don't know about this. We teach them about slavery. We teach them about segregation. But I think that those are examples of great evils that, in the end, were overcome. But I think that the story of the Japanese-American Internment is a story of failure without redemption. I think it's just a story we'd rather forget about.
SHELLEY WONG: OK, so thinking about a narrative of failure, rather than a narrative of overcoming, a narrative of triumph, in one sense, over particular evils. And regardless of how we take, or whether or not we agree, with her assessment of the particular narrative-- what she would call a redeemed narrative, a redemptive narrative about slavery in the US-- what she's trying to say here, or what she's trying to draw our attention to, is the way in which some narratives might not have any way of being redeemed.
We can't come to the end of that story and say, look, things have gotten better. We're progressing. So you might want to think again about that last chapter. Why does it have to end on that angry and bitter note? Why are we left hanging there with the father's-- in one sense, it is anger. It's bitterness. It's despair. It's all of those things. It's resignation. It could be a number of different things. But it's far from a sense of a redemptive moment, where you could say, all right. Things were bad. Things had been wrong, but they're right now. The wrong has been redressed. Reparations have been made. Humpty Dumpty was put back together again. But then we have your rendition of it. He wasn't.
So let me jump ahead a little bit. Because I've realized I'm talking too slowly here. This is an occupational hazard, where you inevitably have far more to present than you have time in which to do so. So I want to get to that other question about the feeling. How does it feel to be a problem? What does it feel like to be interned? What did it feel like? Michael Upchurch says.
And here I want to return for a moment to the Du Bois quotation about double consciousness, about always seeing yourself through the eyes of another, and measuring yourself according to the tape of a world that hold you in contempt and pity, or that regards you with contempt and pity. So what does that mean? In one sense, I think you can understand what that means. But what would it mean to begin to think about that in relation to time or temporality? What might we get from it, to bring the language of time and time passing to that particular understanding of double consciousness?
And here, if I have time, I'll use two examples, but I'll just use one for starters and see where that takes us. The first is from the autobiography of an African American poet and writer, Langston Hughes. It's an autobiography and a travel narrative called I Wonder as I Wander. And at one point, he's on a reading tour of the American South in 1931, and he's headed for Tuskegee University, where he hears the following story from the president of the university, whose name was Robert Moton. And the story, as President Moton tells it, was meant to illustrate what President Moton felt to be what he called, the better part of wisdom in a South that was still roiling with tensions around the Scottsboro Boys trial.
So I'm quoting from Langston Hughes here. He said, "Dr. Moton said that once, returning from a vacation in the North, he had to change trains at Atlanta, to board the Jim Crow car for Tuskegee. From New York to Georgia he had traveled as a first class passenger. When he stepped from his Pullman to the platform in the early morning at the Atlanta station, Dr. Moton said, he heard a scream behind him. He turned and saw that a woman stumbled at the top step of the coach and was falling forward.
Naturally, his first impulse was to reach out his arms and catch her. But when he looked up and saw that she was white, he dropped his arms. The student audience in the chapel roared with laughter. Every one of those Tuskegee students knew. They knew that for a black man-- and Dr. Moton was very black-- to catch a white woman in his arms in Georgia might mean a lynching. Naturally, he dropped his arms and the woman landed head first on the platform. But at least she did not have a chance to cry rape. The irony of Dr. Moton's split-second dilemma amused Tuskagee students greatly. But somehow, I could not laugh, Hughes says. It seemed to me one of the saddest stories I had ever heard."
So I want to underscore here two moments in this story. When Hughes observes, he says, naturally, his first impulse was to reach up his arms to catch the woman. And then, too, when he says, "Naturally, he dropped his arms." The double consciousness in this particular instance, in this particular case, takes the form of two competing impulses-- naturally, to do this. Naturally, to do that. How can they both be natural? The split-second dilemma illustrates that involuntary and that momentary hesitation when you really cannot fully occupy the present of your own body and your own humanity.
I don't know exactly when I started here. Let me give you this one other example. Maybe I'll skip the example, or at least I'll skip part of it. This other anecdote comes from J. Saunders Redding, an African American essayist, academic. He actually was on the faculty here in the Department of English, many years ago. And he's reporting on a time when he's at a university in Louisville during the depression, and the college property at that point abutted a slum, a white slum, he says.
And that winter, as he happens to look out the window one evening, he notices this woman who's dressed only in a ragged slip. She's lurching and staggering around in the snow at the back of her house. And this is what he says. He says, "The woman's face was stiff and vacant, but in her efforts to walk her body and limbs jerked convulsively in progressive tremors. I couldn't tell whether she was drunk or sick as she floundered in the snow in the yard. Pity rose in me, but at the same time, something else also-- a gloating satisfaction that she was white. Sharply and concurrently felt, the two emotions were of equal strength, in perfect balance, and the corporial I"-- not this eye, but this I-- "fixed in a trance at the window, oscillated between these two. When she was within a few steps of the outhouse, the poor woman lurched violently and pitched face forward in the snow. Somehow utterly unable to move, I watched her convulsive struggles for several minutes. The woman made a mess in the snow and then lay still."
He goes on to say, "Finally, I turned irresolutely and went into the corridor. There was the entrance door and there, near it, the telephone. I could have gone out and a few steps would have brought me to the yard where the woman lay, and I could have tried to rouse someone, or myself, and taken her into the house. I went to the telephone and called the police." He then goes on to recount the conversation that he has with the policeman on duty. Initially, he reports that there's a drunken woman who has collapsed outside, and then the policeman tells him to just let her be.
But then, Redding goes on to say, well, she might not be drunk, and that there's no one there to attend to her. And when the police begin to press him about who he is, and what his relationship was to the woman, he simply says, she could freeze to death, and then he hangs up. Then he says, "Thus, I washed my hands of it." But then the next morning's paper brings the news that the young woman had died of exposure because the police didn't arrive until nearly an hour after the phone call, and she had died following an epileptic seizure.
And so Redding says, "One can wash his hands, but the smudges and scars on the psyche are different. I offer no excuses for my part in this wretched episode. Excuses are unavailing. The experiences of my negro-ness in a section where such experiences have their utmost meaning, in fear and degradation, canceled out humaneness. How many times have I heard negroes mutter, when witness to some misfortune befallen a white person, what the hell? He's white, isn't he? What the exact psychological mechanism of this is, I cannot say. But certainly, the frustration of human sympathy and kindness is a symptom of a dangerous trauma."
That's the end of the quotation. And what this incident really names is a symptom of a trauma that's characterized by this inability to act in the moment, an inability that for Redding translates into a kind of irresoluteness and a constant vacillation between the two warring selves. And here, if we go back to the novel, especially in that chapter, "In a stranger's backyard," where the family comes home to Berkeley, or, as the writer has it, where they suddenly, finally are at home, what is it about that suddenness? What is it about that particular arrival home? And if we look at this passage here-- OK, let's see where that one is.
"Later on in the evening"-- this is the boy and the girl narrating-- "we turned on the radio and heard one of the same programs we had listened to before the war, the Green Hornet, and it was as if we had never been away at all. Nothing's changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates. Where were you? they'd ask. Or maybe they would just nod and say, hey. We would join their clubs after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names, we would turn away and pretend not to know her."
There are numerous other passages like this, especially in that particular chapter, but there's something about the way in which this chasm opens. If we're talking about, how can we talk about double consciousness, about a second ego, or about a particular kind of split, where it's no longer possible, in Du Bois's terms, to attain to some sense of true self-consciousness, by which he means a kind of consciousness that has some sense of unity to it, where there aren't always these two competing parts.
And what is it that we might learn about what that feels like if we bring to it a language of time, and time passing, or time not passing? If we talk in terms of the language of hesitations-- those momentary inabilities to move, to act in the moment, to not be able to act spontaneously, to always have that peculiar gap or pause, where you're always thinking, well, maybe I shouldn't do that. Or I'll put up my arms to catch the person-- no, I have to put my arms down and not catch the person for fear of other consequences.
And just to close this at this point, because I think we're getting to the point where you're getting tired, so what does this mean? I'm not closed yet. Hold on. I'll do this as quickly as I can. I'll give you one more, much shorter quotation to think about framing, and to think about a language of time and experience. The Antillean psychologist and post-colonial theorist and critic Frantz Fanon pointed out, at some point in his book, Black Skin, White Masks-- he talks about the ways in which there's always a preexisting meaning that precedes him.
You've all heard that expression, your reputation precedes, when you enter this space, or that space, or whatever. And Fanon talks about it in the sense of the situation for the black man, he is saying. But there are these preexisting meanings. He says, I'm not judged on what I might reveal myself to be in terms of the content of my character, but I am immediately slotted into these preexisting meanings. The meanings were there before me. They were waiting for me, always. And so what would it mean in that sense, where you don't even have the time-- he talks about it as not having the time or the chance to even reveal yourself.
So it's a different sense of how the language of time might give us another kind of insight into what you might now call say, racial profiling, or you can talk about this in terms of stereotypes. Those forms that have their meanings that preexist you-- they're there. You show up, and there you are, already inside that set of meanings, before you've had a chance to say, wait a minute, that's not me. So what is that, when you come too soon into something, when you are not given the time, when you don't have that chance? So it's another way of thinking about this question of time.
And what Fanon talked about-- he tried to make a distinction, for instance, between the situation of the Jew and the black man. He says that both are frequently mis-recognized in the sense that there are these preexisting meanings into which they may be readily slotted. But he says the difference has to do with time. The Jew is not always acknowledged as Jewish immediately. And he says, but I am the slave of my appearance-- that visual tyranny. He says, I'm not given that time. At least for the Jew there's the hope that there is sufficient time to demonstrate something other than Jewishness. He says, in the end, if the person is recognized as Jewish, the consequences can be terrible, and will just be as terrible as it may be for the black man.
But he talks about that in terms of that moment, where it's possible to wait or not wait, and for the black man how it's the instantaneous collapse into how he is seen by the world outside of him. And it seems to me that what this particular novel, what Julie Otuska does in When the Emperor was Divine, is to give her characters time. When she says that first and foremost she wants to devote her attention to the characters and not any overarching frame, not to any overarching redemptive narratives, but to try to think about what it felt like-- what did internment feel like? What is the experience of incarceration in that way? And what she is able to do, and what she very generously does for these particular characters, is to give them that time to reveal themselves.
So on that note, you can now reveal yourselves to the wonderful Sunday afternoon that's outside. So thank you very much.
Feel free to come up and ask any questions if you have--
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Shelley Wong, associate professor in the Department of English and Asian American Studies, gave one of the three "Cornell Contexts" lectures August 25 based on Julie Otsuka's novel "When the Emperor Was Divine," the 2013 New Student Reading Project book.
The book tells the story of a Japanese-American family's experiences in an internment camp during World War II.